America now has nearly 5 PR people for every reporter, double the rate from a decade ago
As I’ve spent the last several months looking for a full-time journalism job, I keep noticing something depressing.
When you search job sites for “journalism,” “reporter” or other similar keywords, what you’ll find is a whole bunch of roles that have nothing to do directly with producing the news.
For every one job result for a reporter, photojournalist or TV producer, you’ll get 10 results for jobs available to people with journalism backgrounds or degrees to switch careers toward marketing, advertising and - most of all - public relations.
I decided to dig into the numbers and what I found was a media landscape that has seen a huge rise in pitchmen and a big drop in news reporters, at a rate that surprised even a jaded newspaper reporter such as myself.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, here is how the total American job numbers looked 15 years ago, and today:
2000: 65,900 news reporters, and 128,600 public relations people
2015: 45,800 news reporters, and 218,000 public relations people
So 15 years ago, there were two PR people for every reporter in the country. Now there are 4.8 PR people for every reporter.
This is a huge change, as companies and organizations are seeking to bypass a shrinking media industry and tell their own stories. What this means is that people are getting less objective news and more biased content.
When I tweeted those stats recently, a lot of reporters chimed in, including former Baltimore Sun staffer and creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” David Simon.
“This is how a republic dies. Not with a bang, but a reprinted press release,” Simon tweeted with a link to the stats.
This is how a republic dies. Not with a bang, but a reprinted press release. https://t.co/R5kidPFXli
— David Simon (@AoDespair) March 19, 2016
Many other reporters lamented the stats as an explanation for why their inbox is full of endless pitches for things that aren’t newsworthy. Or they bemoaned that a good number of the new PR people are ex-reporters. And those in public relations were quick to point out how much of the “media relations” portion of their job has shrunk recently.
As you would imagine, newspapers have been hit especially hardest.
The American Society of News Editors found that the number of U.S. newspapers staffers has dropped 40 percent in just eight years, from 55,000 journalists in 2007 to 32,900 in 2015. Since newspapers are typically the starting point for original coverage that gets stolen aggregated picked up by other media outlets, the drop in newspaper reporters means the amount of real news out there has been hit especially hard.
But it’s not just the availability of jobs - the PR industry has won the battle for compensating people, too.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2000 the average journalist made $37,510 and PR people made $43,700.
Now, journalists make $50,970 and PR people earn $65,830.
When you exclude broadcast news analysts from that total, pay for just news reporters (a job that typically requires a college degree) now falls slightly below the average for all American workers.
Overall, the gap in pay between flacks and hacks has nearly tripled from about $6,200 to nearly $15,000 in just 15 years. That means over a career of 20 years, the average PR person will make about $300,000 more than the typical reporter, and as anyone in either industry knows, the benefits will be much more lucrative at a public relations firm.
To recap: On one side, you have an industry shrinking rapidly, with little job security and pay going down relative to inflation. On the other is a booming field valued by companies big and small, with pay rising.
So my experience looking for a full-time reporter job and seeing only PR gigs is fairly typical today. One of the scariest responses I’ve received to these stats is from two separate professors, who tweeted to me that not one student in either of their most recent journalism classes was actually looking to get into journalism.
It’s tough to blame them.
The growing pay gap between journalism and public relations
Alex T. Williams
After years of grim news for the news industry marked by seemingly endless rounds of staff cutbacks, it’s not unusual for those thinking about a career in journalism or veterans trying to find a new job to look at options in related fields. One field outpacing journalism both in sheer numbers and in salary growth is public relations.
The salary gap between public relations specialists and news reporters has widened over the past decade – to almost $20,000 a year, according to 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, the public relations field has expanded to a degree that these specialists now outnumber reporters by nearly 5 to 1 (BLS data include part-time and full-time employees, but not self-employed.)
In 2013, according to BLS data, public relations specialists earned a median annual income of $54,940 compared with $35,600 for reporters. In other words, journalists on average earn just 65% of what those in public relations earn. That is a greater income gap than in 2004 when journalists were paid 71 cents of every dollar earned by those in public relations ($43,830 versus $31,320).
Most of that widening has come from salary growth in the public relations industry during a time when salary increases in the journalism field did not even keep up with inflation.
As the salary gap has grown, so too has the gap between the number of employees working in each field. There were 4.6 public relations specialists for every reporter in 2013, according to the BLS data. That is down slightly from the 5.3 to 1 ratio in 2009 but is considerably higher than the 3.2 to 1 margin that existed a decade ago, in 2004.
Over this 10-year stretch, the number of reporters decreased from 52,550 to 43,630, a 17% loss according to the BLS data. In contrast, the number of public relations specialists during this timeframe grew by 22%, from 166,210 to 202,530.
The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics department are based on surveys of employers. The analyzed data includes the categories of “Reporters and Correspondents” and “Public Relations Specialists.” It does not include editors or public relations managers.
The disparity is also reflected in a new survey from the University of Georgia that found that new graduates starting a career in public relations earn, on average, $35,000 a year – about $5,000 more than those starting out at daily newspapers and $6,000 more than those working in television
One factor behind the increase in public relations jobs has been digital technology. Agencies and companies are now able to reach out directly to the public in any number of ways and are hiring public relations specialists to help them do so. There are ways this can be helpful to the public, such as being able to offer updates in real time about virus outbreaks and background reports on the risks associated with it. One concern it raises when looked at alongside the shrinking newsrooms is the greater difficulty reporters have vetting information from outside sources.
In their 2010 book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols wrote, “As editorial staffs shrink, there is less ability for news media to interrogate and counter the claims in press releases.”
A Pew Research Center report on 2012 presidential election coverage documented how journalists in that campaign often functioned as megaphones for political partisans, relaying assertions rather than contextualizing them. Noting a “sharp rise in the influence of partisan voices, spin doctors and surrogates in shaping what the public is told about the biography and the character of the candidates,” the report connected that phenomenon to the “diminishing reportorial resources in newsrooms.”
And a 2014 study of health-related coverage by JAMA Internal Medicine found that half of the stories examined relied on a single source or failed to disclose conflicts of interest from sources. The report concluded that “for certain information, reliance on a news release is appropriate. However, journalists are expected to independently vet claims.”